Saturday, February 14, 2009


Papillon posterPapillon (1973) tells the fact-based story of French ex-convict Henri Charriere (1906-1973), who wrote the book on which it is based. Charriere was known as Papillon, French for 'butterfly', because of a butterfly tattoo on his chest. Wrongly convicted of the murder of a pimp, Papillon was sentenced to hard labour for life in 1931, a sentence which was to be served in a prison in French Guiana.

The film begins with the Atlantic crossing of a group of French prisoners, one of whom is Papillon, played by Steve McQueen. Early on, another prisoner informs him of the identity of Louis Degas, played by Dustin Hoffman, who has been convicted for a counterfeiting scam and is apparently very wealthy. Already thinking about his escape, Papillon offers Degas protection from the other prisoners, who will try to kill him for his money, in return for some share of the benefits Degas' money can buy in prison. Degas agrees, and is saved from murder by Papillon that very night. Once they get to French Guiana, the two men stick by each other as they are processed into the St. Laurent Penitencier. They begin their sentences of hard labour. Papillon is obsessed with escape, and is constantly searching for a means by which he run away. One day, while he is planning his escape, Papillon sees Degas being attacked by a prison guard and intervenes, saving Degas' life. He takes advantage of the commotion to escape, fleeing into the jungle while the guards chase him. He makes it to the sea's edge, but is caught by two bounty hunters and is returned to the prison. The punishment for attempted escape is two years of solitary confinement on an outlying island called Devil's Island.

Thus begin Papillon's two years of hell, in which he is confined in a tiny cell with very little food and water. Initially, he is quite optimistic and tries to do exercises and eat well to stay strong. One day, he begins receiving a coconut in his daily water ration, with a note from Degas telling him it will keep him healthy. However, the guards soon find out about the daily coconut and upon Papillon's refusal to reveal the identity of his benefactor, they cut his rations in half and cover his cell so that he is in complete darkness. Here, he begins to go mad, eating insects and dying of starvation. When he is on the point of death, his two year sentence is finished and he returns to the main prison, where he is hospitalized. As he gets healthier, Degas and another prisoner, Clusiot, begin to help him plan an escape. With a little help from another hospitalized inmate, Maturette, they escape one night when the prison band is giving a concert that serves as a distraction. They knock out a few guards and climb over the wall, leaving Clusiot behind. Degas breaks his leg as he jumps from the wall. The three make it to a boat which they had arranged to be waiting for them, but the boat is broken. Luckily, a mystery hunter leads them to a leper's colony, where they arrange to buy a boat with a sail and embark on their sea journey North to Venezuela.

Days later, they make it to the Venezuelan coast, only to find a group of Venezuelan military officers and their prisoner on the beach where they land. Maturette is shot. Degas, who cannot walk because of his broken leg, is left behind as Papillon and the Venezuelan prisoner escape into the jungle. The officers send two natives to track and kill them, and the Venezuelan prisoner is caught in one of their traps. But Papillon manages to escape. He finally finds a coastal native village, where he spends some time living with the indigenous people, especially one young woman. The tribe becomes quite used to him, and its chief even asks Papillon to tattoo a butterfly on his chest, just like Papillon's. But soon Papillon must continue on; he is trying to get to Honduras, where he is safe. He takes a bus to a missionary town, where he stays in the convent for one night. The head nun, upon his admission of being an escaped convict, albeit a falsely accused one, turns him in to the local authorities. He is sent back to the Penitencier St. Laurent to serve another five years in solitary confinement. Five years later, he is released from solitary confinement, an old man with white hair. He is sent to serve the rest of his sentence in a small community of convicts on Devil's Island, where he stumbles upon Degas, who is living a solitary life in a small hut with his vegetable garden and livestock. The two men are both evidently psychologically damaged from their experiences in prison, but manage to have a decent friendship. Finally, a day comes in which Papillon finds a way to escape from the island, on a floating raft of coconuts. He offers to bring Degas with him, but Degas refuses; he can no longer imagine a life away from this windswept, lonely island. The final scene shows Papillon on a raft of coconuts, swimming out to sea, yelling up to the sky, "Hey, you bastards! I'm still here!". A voice informs the viewers that he successfully escaped to the mainland.

French Guiana's portrayal is linked to that of "Devil's Island"--a place where horrible conditions, violent guards, and disease crush the bodies and spirits of the men. It takes a very strong, resilient person like Papillon to survive them. The colony originated as a penal settlement; its very creation and existence depended upon the punishment of lawbreakers and criminals. The windswept, sweltering and lonely Devil's Island, the oppressive tangled darkness of the jungle, and the hardened, heartless inhabitants of the place create a pervading atmosphere of hostility. This place is devilish because it is a prison, because there is no freedom. The lepers theoretically live freely, but really they too are imprisoned by their disease. As soon as Papillon, Maturette, and Degas have gotten on their sailboat and sail into the Atlantic, the atmosphere changes completely. The sweeping scenes of the gorgeous, bright blue sea and the windy palm-covered beaches evoke a sense of freedom and movement. The idyllic native village in Venezuela where Papillon finds acceptance and peace is the polar opposite of the oppression of French Guiana. And so the atmosphere of Latin America is influenced by the form of community that exists there; its inhabitants can make one place feel like a hell while 50 kilometres up the shore other people make it heaven.

However, Papillon is a butterfly, always flying from place to place, hardly resting. In French Guiana and Venezuela, he does not belong. And he is constantly trying to escape, obsessed with escape. All of Papillon's dreams and daydreams take place in France, where he wears a little suit and beret. Papillon wants to leave Latin America, leave it behind. Although he finds joy in the indigenous village, this joy is temporary because he does not belong and he continues his restless journey. It seems that every time he begins to flap his wings, he is recaptured and caged. In the last scene, as he swims away on the deep blue sea, it is evident that for the rest of his life, he will try to escape Latin America at any cost.

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